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Banning 'the Box’

President Obama could send a strong signal to employers by barring executive-branch agencies from asking about criminal records on job applications.

  • Nicole Zayas Fortier
  • Abigail Finkelman
May 14, 2014

Cross­pos­ted on The Amer­ican Prospect

Last week, the City of Baltimore approved an ordin­ance remov­ing “the box,” as it is known among those with a crim­inal record, from employ­ment applic­a­tions for compan­ies with 10 or more employ­ees. It joins more than 10 states and 60 cities and counties—in­clud­ing Hawaii; New York City; Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia; and Jack­son­ville, Flor­id­a—in an effort to provide a second chance to people return­ing to their community after serving their time in prison. Just 40 miles away in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Pres­id­ent Obama could follow their lead by banning the box for all exec­ut­ive-branch employ­ment.

Today, 70 million Amer­ic­ans have crim­inal record­s—n­early one third of the Amer­ican adult popu­la­tion. Stud­ies reveal that formerly incar­cer­ated people with stable employ­ment are far less likely to reoffend than those who are unem­ployed. But too often, they’re hindered by the employer prac­tice of asking about prior convic­tions, which for many serves as an instant disqual­i­fic­a­tion. As a result, former offend­ers have a perman­ent stigma that prevents their success­ful rein­teg­ra­tion into soci­ety, despite their best efforts.

As a recent Bren­nan Center report notes, the pres­id­ent has the author­ity to change its hiring prac­tices. Such a reform would increase federal employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies for the formerly incar­cer­ated, increas­ing their chances of rehab­il­it­a­tion and rein­teg­ra­tion. Obama could issue an exec­ut­ive order direct­ing the White House Office of Person­nel Manage­ment, which is tasked with setting policy on federal hiring proced­ures, and all other exec­ut­ive agen­cies to remove ques­tions about crim­inal records from initial employ­ment applic­a­tion forms.

The nearly 2.7 million exec­ut­ive-branch posi­tions should­n’t be out of reach for every­one with a crim­inal record.  But the order will also send a message to other public and private employ­ers: Defin­ing applic­ants by their past mistakes without consid­er­ing their qual­i­fic­a­tions and poten­tial is unjust and unne­ces­sary.

There is a wealth of data show­ing that includ­ing “the box” on applic­a­tions often precludes those with a crim­inal record from even getting an inter­view. One study found that employ­ers are 50 percent less likely to call back white applic­ants with crim­inal records than those without records. The effect is even more signi­fic­ant for African Amer­ic­ans: They were 64 percent less likely to get a call­back.

A few federal agen­cies have already removed the box from employ­ment applic­a­tions, prefer­ring to conduct a back­ground check after applic­ants are further along in the hiring process. But the policy is incon­sist­ent; there is no govern­ment-wide direct­ive, even though the U.S. Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tun­ity Commis­sion endorsed banning the box as a best prac­tice in 2012. While it is commend­able that some agen­cies have taken this import­ant step on their own, more should be done.

To be clear, it should not be a blanket ban. Law enforce­ment and national-secur­ity agen­cies should still have full discre­tion over their applic­a­tions, and other agen­cies could inquire about crim­inal history later in the hiring process. Further screen­ing would be conduc­ted if an applic­ant’s convic­tion could directly affect his or her abil­ity to perform the posi­tion’s required duties. But post­pon­ing this inquiry would give those with a crim­inal record a fair shot at land­ing an inter­view, and if he or she makes it further, the oppor­tun­ity to explain a crim­inal record. Qual­i­fied, talen­ted people would no longer be disqual­i­fied from good jobs just because of their past.

Banning the box for certain exec­ut­ive branch posi­tions is only a start. This action will excite the move­ment for states, local­it­ies, and other federal branches to follow suit. With a stroke of his pen, Pres­id­ent Obama can give millions of Amer­ic­ans a second chance at secur­ing gain­ful employ­ment—the first step towards a life as part of soci­ety, not on its fringes. He should do so.

(Photo: Think­stock)